Transformative Play

Transform
verb (used with object)
1. To change in form, appearance, or structure; metamorphose.
2. To change in condition, nature, or character; convert.
3. To change into another substance; transmute.
verb (used without object)
4. To undergo a change in form, appearance, or character; become transformed.

Play
noun
1. A dramatic performance, as on the stage.
2. Exercise or activity for amusement or recreation.
3. The playing, action, or conduct of a game:
verb (used with object)
4. To act the part of (a person or character) in a dramatic performance; portray:
5. To act or sustain (a part) in a dramatic performance or in real life:
6. To engage in (a game, pastime, etc.).

Welcome to the Transformative Play Lab

In the last 20 years digital games have grown into a powerful medium for cultural expression, education, political activism, and of course entertainment. Understanding games and play gives us powerful new tools creating human connections.  At the Transformative Play Lab, we are exploring the intersections of games and narrative, games and learning, and games and social justice.

We see storytelling as the first fundamental cognitive tool that humans use to make sense of the world, and to communicate their understandings of the world to each-other.  The second essential human activity is play, which creates strategies for exploring and understanding our world.  Storytelling and play are deeply lodged in the experience of being human: technology affords us new platforms for telling stories and for enabling meaningful opportunities to play that extend into adulthood.  From this perspective, games are both a profoundly powerful media form for entertainment, and a means of effecting change in the world.

We seek to better understand the pleasures that come from engaging in participatory storytelling, and to better understand how to create powerful and moving stories using digital technologies.  Our work focuses on what it means for a player to experience a sense of identity transformation in a game or interactive digital storytelling system. When we transform into a character, we have an opportunity to gain empathy: to see the world through someone else’s eyes and to experience a new set of “given circumstances” that can challenge our own complacencies and assumptions about the world.

To better understand this we undertake research across many different disciplines: we study the embodied experience of physically interacting with digital systems through gesture and movement; we investigate the way that actors and theater practitioners experience character transformation when they perform; we create games and digital storytelling systems that use tangible objects and props to give people gateways into the fictional world.  We envision physical narrative environments, interactive costume design, and hybrid physical/digital storytelling systems that literally bring the player into the world of the game.

Our research aims to develop new narrative technologies and techniques to help develop human empathy and understanding:  to create opportunities for tolerance and justice in the world by developing media forms that give people a profound experience of what it must be like to walk a day in another’s shoes.  The power of participatory forms is that they are active – they necessitate that players enact their lessons, and experience them through a visceral cycle of cause-and-effect.  If we can build a deeper understanding of the underlying poetics of these new forms, then we can create experiences that can bridge gaps in understanding and experience to create a more just world.